Chances are you’ve read some variation on this in some article another in the last few days:
[X] team has lost and drawn [Y] number of fixtures, their worst record since [a date in the distant past].
Richard Williams for example wrote today:
“If [Real Madrid] lose to Manchester City in the Santiago Bernabéu on Tuesday it will be the first time in their history that the nine-times European Cup champions have fallen to defeat in their first home match of the competition, a record consisting of 40 wins and two draws, the most recent of which came against Anderlecht, exactly 50 years ago.”
A few days ago, the Score’s own Paolo Bandini remarked:
When Milan were defeated by Atalanta at San Siro on Saturday, having already been beaten there by Sampdoria three weeks previously, observers got to wondering how long it had been since the Rossoneri lost both of their first two home fixtures of a Serie A season.
The answer was more than 80 years ago. Only once in their entire history, in fact, had the Rossoneri begun a top-flight campaign quite so poorly at home – all the way back in 1930-31, when they opened with a 3-0 defeat to Juventus and a 1-0 loss to Lazio.
And before that, I chided David Lacey for pressing the panic button in light of Liverpool’s record-setting terrible start.
To start, a few caveats. As I wrote in response to the Lacey piece, three, four, and even five games isn’t a substantial enough sample size from which to make broad predictions about the outcome of a season (unless you’re the effing Baltimore Orioles, the bastards).
And for every major, traditionally successful team that’s stinking up the joint three match-days into the season, there are more Big Clubs that are doing just fine, thank you very much.
But while I don’t have much in the way of empirical data to back up the following claims (help a brother out, analytics nerds!), I suspect there might be something to these ‘slow starts.’
First, while the average changes from year-to-year, there is no mistaking a downward trend in the average tenure of football managers. While I don’t have data for the rest of Europe, the League Managers Association published this graph beginning in the 1993-94 season of average managerial tenure across league football:
The recent turnover in managers at Liverpool since the departure of Rafa Benitez for example may have taken its toll on the team under new guy Brendan Rodgers. Moreover, Rodgers did not have the advantage of a robust summer transfer window, which follows nicely to the next point—there has been a significant drop in the number of transfers in recent months, likely owing in part to the upcoming Financial Fair Play regulations. From the BBC:
International football transfer numbers and player buying fees have fallen sharply worldwide in the past six months, says governing body Fifa.
Completed player deals fell by 9% in the first six months of 2012, but their total financial value plunged by more than a third, falling by 34%.
Total income from 4,973 transfers around the globe was $576m (£371m).
Add to that the fact that new, non-traditional ‘big clubs’ backed by overseas investors with practically limitless budgets have diluted the global player pool. Just yesterday Jonathan Wilson detailed how Russian clubs were changing the European footballing landscape, and last year saw Manchester City win their first title since 1968.
This summer also saw AC Milan lose some of its best players to Paris Saint-Germain, a club owned by backers in the Qatar Investment Authority. These clubs have been furiously working the transfer market in order to beat the FFP deadline and gain a toe-hold in European competition.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, there is the glut of extra fixtures in European football, particularly with the Euros and the Olympics falling in the same summer. To get an idea of the previous impact of that double whammy, let’s take a look at the 2008-09 domestic leagues.
In 2008, after three fixtures Barcelona were in 9th place with four points. Real Madrid were 6th. In England, Manchester United were in 13th place, also with four points in three games. Milan were in 15th place with three points from three. In Germany, Bayern Munich were 7th, with five points from three games. You can see the same pattern from the 2004-05 season as well: after three games, Bayern were 10th, Man United were 12th, and AC Milan 12th. Barcelona meanwhile were tied for third and Juventus were first, but—coincidentally or no—both Spain and Italy crashed out in the group stages in Euro 2004.
Did these results have an impact on each team’s performance in their respective leagues? Well, Barcelona won the league in 08-09, as did Manchester United. Milan finished third behind Inter and Juventus. Bayern Munich finished second behind Wolfsburg.
In other words, while the slow start may have had an impact, it may not have been decisive. The participation of clubs in the previous year’s European competition likely also played a role. For example, Man United have enjoyed a strong start this year, but did not excel in Europe last season.
Additionally, they fielded fewer players in Euro 2012 (as evidenced by UEFA compensation records) than Liverpool. Real Madrid also fielded more players than Barcelona. AC Milan were second to Juventus in number of players fielded in Euro 2012 from Serie A, but then again, Juventus didn’t compete in any European competition last year…
All of these factors taken together this year have likely had a significant impact on each European club’s start, of historical proportions. But on the evidence, the results should not be used to make claims on the season-long future of any of the involved clubs, and certainly not the careers of their respective managers.